Monday, July 13, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Number One" (1969)

To me Charlton Heston's star persona always carried with it a hefty asshole vibe.

I'm not conflating his later-in-life activism, replete with stern "cold dead hands" machismo. I've always been pretty adept at separating a filmmaker's real-life behavior from what they put up on the screen.

(Otherwise I'd probably have gone insane or quit criticism long ago.)

No, I'm talking about his choice of movie roles and how he played them. Even in heroic parts Heston's characters tend to act with a hard-eyed glare rather than a beneficent gaze. From Ben-Hur to Col. George Taylor to Moses, the men he's played are closely aligned with rage, stubbornness and a sense of victimhood.

He rarely played villains but his characters often had antihero shadings to them. Heston's were not "turn the other cheek" kinda guys. They were often wronged men who fought back with an equal measure of hard-heartedness as was inflicted upon them.

I don't go for political analyses of film, but it's not hard to see the outlines of threatened patriarchy in Heston's profile. "The noble jerk" is probably the best summation of his persona.

It's on full display in "Number One," a little-remembered sports drama from 1969. He plays Ron "Big Cat" Catlan, the 40-year-old quarterback for the New Orleans Saints facing down the prospect of retirement. (The Saints and the NFL were full participants in the project, and a bunch of real players fill the background.)

Cat is the best of the best, a contender for the football GOAT (greatest of all time) mantle, who previously led the team to a championship. (Fun fact: although the Super Bowl started in 1967, it didn't become the recognized NFL championship game until the year after "Number One" came out.)

He doesn't necessarily have a swelled head, but Cat is used to being treated with deference by everyone around him. Now his skills are clearly fading, and the fans have started to boo more than cheer. As the story opens and he leaves the last exhibition game after aggravating an old knee injury, one man loudly suggests he sign up for Social Security.

The coach (John Randolph) tells Cat he's got three more good seasons in him, though we sense he's got his own doubts. 

Worse yet, his would-be successor, young uppity (I use that word purposely) black QB Kelly Williams (Richard Elkins) is openly vying for his job. He plants a rumor with a New York Times columnist that Cat is thinking about hanging it up, which wasn't true before but launches a whole lot of doubt on the older man's part, and throughout the Saints organization.

Interestingly, Cat seems OK with the competition, only objecting to Williams' betraying of the team ethos by taking it outside the huddle. In a flashback scene we see him driving Williams to his first training camp and giving him plenty of encouragement. And when the coach asks Cat about which of his backups to cut, he chooses keeping Williams because he admits the kid scares him, while he others do not.

There's a romantic angle in the movie -- because of course there is. Cat is seemingly happily married to Julie (Jessica Walter) though they're childless and her interest in in football has waned as her own career as a fashion designer has started to take off. (Without producing a lot of income, though, which adds to the tension.)

He runs into Ann Marley (Diana Muldaur), a former model who now owns a tennis club. She performs an elaborately coy seduction, simultaneously aggressive and hard to get. Ann lets Cat know she's interested and available, drops lots of hints, then acts timid and sorrowful when he finally is ready to close the deal.

Ann and Julie are very similar, from their wide faces with big eyes framed by soft brown hair, to the fact they're strong-willed women who have their own vocations, yet are willing to submit to Cat's dominance. (This is still a mainstream film from Hollywood, after all.)

One scene that registers very high on the "icky" scale is where Cat arrives at Julie's studio after a show and finds her getting a backrub from Robin (Steve Franken), her flamboyantly gay colleague. Robin likes to fling a lot of inert flirtations at Cat just to get a rise out of him, and this time ne nearly takes the man's head off, hollering that his mannerisms disgust him.

The couple proceed to have a knock-down fight -- quite literally, as he angrily grabs her, bends her backward over a couch and basically forces himself on her. (Though she ultimately gives in and joins in... again, Hollywood.)

One of the big impediments to Cat retiring is, surprising to us today, money. Though well paid by contemporary standards, Cat complains the NFL owners treat their players like "peons." Most of the men he came up with in the game have gone on to lucrative second careers -- or become stumblebums asking for a handout while relishing their glory days.

Doing a little research I learn the average NFL salary in 1969 was $25,000, or about $150k in today's dollars. Top players like Cat might earn double that, so although firmly in the comfortable range his pay wouldn't have allowed him to stop working at 40 -- unless he were willing to live a crimped life, which he is not.

Cat wants to see if he can ease out into the high life, or something like it. A couple of offers present themselves. One is at a computer company, where an executive only a few years older than him warns that with all the smart kids coming out of college, he might not be able to hire him for a management job in six months -- or even driving the company truck in another year.

It's a nice little speech, even if it quite obviously borrows from the infamous "plastics" pitch in "The Graduate."

The other gig is for a former teammate, Richie Fowler (Bruce Dern), who blithely walked away from the game at a young age after making his first Pro Bowl team, and now runs the biggest car leasing service in Louisiana. Richie's an impish playboy who encourages a female friend of his to strip at his party, and Cat's clearly repulsed by him -- not just his behavior, but that someone who wasn't the same caliber of player made it so easily in the football afterlife.

Heston isn't terribly convincing as a pro gridiron player, even for a quarterback. He had an odd build for a movie star -- tall, with a wide torso and spindly arms -- and actually got his start as a painters' model.

As he got older and Hollywood's taste for bare flesh waxed, he was only too happy to go along. Heston was in his mid-40s when they made "Number One," and gets a shower scene for his trouble. A tight turtleneck and other late '60s fashion do little to hide the flubberyness already creeping around his middle.

There isn't a whole lot of football in "Number One." Aside from the games at the very beginning and end, there's just a couple of practice sequences in between. Cat idly flips the ball around while Williams takes most of the snaps under center. According to accounts of the film's production, Heston didn't impress any of the real footballers with his athletic abilities.

Though, apparently neither Heston or director Tom Gries felt the last hit on Cat at the end of the film was convincing enough on the first take, so they did a second with instructions to the pros to really hit him. They complied, and there would be no third take -- Heston suffered three broken ribs.

Bleeding from the ear, abandoned by Julie who bolts for the exit, Cat tries to push himself up but falls to the dirt, utterly undone. Having dithered about retiring, he finds himself left without a choice.

If there's a moral to "Number One" -- the original screenplay was by David Moessinger, who spent most of his career in TV -- it's that holding on to something too long can make it turn sour. Cat knows in his heart he should quit, but too many thoughts buzzing in his head -- fear, pride, anger, embarrassment -- keep him from making the right choice, or any choice.

The same goes for Julie and Ann, who represent a parallel dichotomy to his football quandary. I think Cat could be happy with either woman, as long as he was willing to commit totally to one of them. Instead, he wants to have them both.

That's pretty jerky behavior, and something Heston was adept at playing, even in mediocre stuff like this. Maybe in person he was a lot more compassionate and laid-back than his characters. Though who'd want to buy a ticket to see that guy?

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